Put down the potato chips and slowly back away: new research suggests that salt intake is linked to autoimmune diseases. What does that mean? It means restaurant meals and processed food make your body attack itself. Say what? Yes, actually your body attacks itself all the time, but the reasons for what it exactly sets it off can be difficult to study. That's why this study linking salt to autoimmune issues is a great step forward for research.
Here's the basic deal with autoimmune diseases: one of the things your body does to keep you alive, mostly without you noticing, is attack invasive particles. In order to do this, it has to identify those invaders, and sometimes it gets that wrong. If this happens chronically or to an excessive extent, it's called an autoimmune disease. Some of the better known autoimmune diseases are multiple sclerosis, lupus, crohn's disease and psoriasis.
So, how does salt come into play? Researchers have found that incrementally increasing salt in cell cultures causes an increase in creation of autoimmune cells. This was done both with mouse and human cells.
It was “an easy experiment — you just add salt”, says David Hafler, a neurologist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, who led the research.
Both Hafler and Vijay Kuchroo, an immunologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA, found that in a mouse model of multiple sclerosis, a high-salt diet accelerated the disease’s progression.
The mounting data “is building a very interesting hypothesis [that] salt may be one of the environmental triggers of autoimmunity,” said Kuchroo.
As for you, reader, there are simple steps you can take to decrease your salt intake. A large portion of salt in the American diet comes from processed food (potato chips, pretzels, most things you have to unwrap) and restaurant food. Increasing fruits and vegetable intake and eating at home can cut your salt intake dramatically (it's hard to match restaurants in how much salt they use when you cook at home).
Here are ten of the main sources for where Americans get their salt:
- Snacks like potato chips, popcorn, and pretzels
- Meatloaf and other "meat-mixed" dishes
- Pasta dishes
- Cheeseburgers and sandwiches
- Chicken (both fresh and processed)
- Cured meats like cold cuts
- Bread and rolls
Notice that none of these with the possible exception of soup (or pizza) are things you would make on your own. It's very hard to eat healthily if you always eat out, and a lot of healthy eating happens accidentally when you eat in.